Chinese Campaigns for Political Influence in Africa

Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission
China’s political influence in Africa spans political party training, media penetration, and the shaping of governance norms

On May 8, Yun Sun, Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s strategic aims in Africa. Yun Sun analyzed aspects of China’s political influence in Africa through political capacity building, political party training, media elites training, and engagement through its diplomatic corps. She also assessed the African response and reception to such Chinese efforts, which forms a baseline in understanding the effectiveness of the Chinese influence.

Main findings

China’s political influence in Africa spans numerous approaches that contribute to Beijing’s strategic aims on the continent.

1.    Political party trainings

Accelerating significantly since 2000, the CCP’s engagement with African parties shifted from an overtly ideological dialogue on Chinese communism to a more subtle and expansive demonstration of the fruits of China’s economic development. Based on the assumption that China’s remarkable economic progress over the past few decades is attributable primarily to its political system, the CCP engages directly with African political parties, political leaders, and other elites to provide political training programs in China. Party-to-party relations provide a foundation for China to deepen its partnerships in Africa in contrast to Western countries, particularly the United States, whose development finance advocates for a different set of rules.

2.    Media and digital space

The 2018 FOCAC Beijing Action Plan for 2019-2021 promotes the establishment of a China-Africa media cooperation network in which China trains African media officials and journalists and promotes exchanges and visits as well as the joint production of media. With the promotion of Chinese media resources by national agencies and private broadcasters with Chinese backing, the sparse media environments of many African countries could see Chinese monopolization of news and broadcasted arts to curry favor for Chinese worldviews or soft power. African media companies with partial Chinese ownership of African media have seen possible cases of censorship or content management. Chinese actors’ influence on African countries’ governance structures has a direct impact on norm-building on the continent, and this is particularly true with the spread of the norm of “internet sovereignty” to African countries. Chinese firms have also exported hardware and practices applicable to surveillance states.

3.    Diplomatic engagement

China’s diplomatic attention and resources devoted to Africa outpace that of the U.S. in measures of not only embassies but also high-level diplomatic visits. China’s high-level visits have three complementary geopolitical goals. They advance economic and political engagement with the continent, offer a stark contrast to the U.S.’s Africa policy, and provide a direct channel to high-level Chinese officials for African leaders to voice their interests. China’s diplomatic corps in Africa is playing an increasingly active role in shaping African public opinion through diverse social media channels and communications strategies.

How have African countries responded?

African governments and communities have, as a whole, lauded Chinese investment and aid as well as its political engagement with the continent. Politically, China represents to some Africans a model to emulate, and China’s appeal as a comember of the Global South helps. Economically, governments near-unanimously praise China’s investment and aid, competing for the limited yet sizeable funds. Some pushback does exist, however, and this backlash has most heavily centered around China’s economic rather than political influence, involving perceptions of malign business practices and environmental damages.


Recommendations to Congress

1.    Enhance U.S. engagement: A key reason that China is gaining momentum in Africa has been the lack of attention and resources from Washington toward the continent. If the U.S. is able to enhance its economic, political, and diplomatic efforts to offer African countries an alternative, it will mitigate the Chinese ability to dominate the discourse.

2.    Emphasize bidirectional communication channels: Reputational obstacles and historical legacies of colonialism that often accompany Western engagement with Africa can be mitigated by reinforcing the bidirectional nature of political, economic, and diplomatic interactions between the U.S. and the continent. Ensuring that U.S. diplomatic visits continue to highlight African perspectives, needs, and initiatives can offer these countries even more opportunities to enhance African development.

3.    Increase investment in African civil society: To better inform the African governments’ decision-making, the U.S. should increase support of African civil society to strengthen local safeguards against Chinese negative intentions and malign activities and increase African self-autonomy and agency in the continent’s own future.

4.    Align with like-minded partners: Forming an alignment with like-minded partners in Africa will boost the available resources and credibility of the U.S. engagement, diminishing the perception that the U.S. interest is to compete with China in Africa rather than a genuine interest in the continent itself. It will also help to enhance the effectiveness of the engagement with the input and support of other donors and partners.

5.    Limit the impact of great power rivalry on Africa: Despite the fact that China is increasing its effort to gain political influence in Africa, the challenges faced by the continent are so vast and diverse that great power rivalry should not hinder efforts, joint or unilateral, to assist African countries to battle their difficulties. The U.S. should avoid punishing Africa for the sake of competing with China.

Watch the full testimony.

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